Thursday, June 13, 2024

Gender equality: focus on the world of work

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A rebalanced distribution of paid and unpaid work is a prerequisite of gender equality in employment.

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Working fathers are more likely to support fewer paid working hours, favouring a redistribution of caring responsibilities (Pressmaster/shutterstock.com)

The jury is still out on whether men and women are from different planets. When it comes however to the world of work, the evidence shows they are worlds apart. 

According to the European Working Conditions Telephone Survey, men and women do not work in the same sectors, the same occupations or the same workplaces. The EWCTS conducted in 2021 found that 60 per cent of workers in the European Union were surrounded by more co-workers of their own gender than of the other. Only one-fifth worked in mixed-gender workplaces where the shares of women and men were roughly equal.

And two-thirds had a male boss. For a woman, there was at least an even chance her manager was female but only 20 per cent of male workers reported working for a female boss.

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Working time is another big divider. On average in the EU, in 2021 men spent nearly six hours more per week than women on paid work: men reported working a little over 42 hours, while women worked close to 37. This is largely explained by the fact that women are more likely to work part-time. According to EU data, in the third quarter of 2022 around one-third of employed women (28 per cent) were working part time; the share of men was 8 per cent. These differences are one of the main explanations—but not the only one—for the persistent gender pay gap.

Eight weeks more

Of course, this does not mean women work less. The survey also asked about hours spent on unpaid work, such as housework, cooking or caring for children or other relatives. Here the picture was more than reversed: women spent on average 13 hours more than men on unpaid work each week. Add the hours spent on paid work and women end up with the longer working week—a combined 70 hours compared with men’s 63. That accumulates annually to the equivalent of eight full-time weeks more work on average for women than men.


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There is some evidence that if paid work is distributed more equally between men and women sharing of the burden of unpaid activities, such as caring and housework, is also more balanced. While there are many differences in paid and unpaid work among EU member states—in 2021 the gender difference in total weekly hours worked ranged from three in Luxembourg and France to 17 in Croatia—the countries with smaller gender gaps in paid work also had smaller gaps in unpaid work, with the clear exception of Croatia (Figure 1).

Figure 1: gender gaps in paid, unpaid and total weekly working hours, EU member states

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The vertical axis shows how many hours fewer women spent on paid work than men; the horizontal axis shows how many hours more women spent on unpaid work than men. The bigger the bubble, the larger the gender gap in total working (paid and unpaid) hours.
Source: EWCTS 2021

The fact that women spend on average fewer hours in paid work could be one of the reasons why a slightly higher share report a good work-life balance (82 per cent) than men (80 per cent). Long hours in paid work are associated with poor work-life balance; for those working more than 48 hours per week, one in three reported this.

Having a good work-life balance does not however mean there are no conflicts between working and private life—and women experience these conflicts more frequently than men. They find it more difficult to switch off: more women (29 per cent) than men (25 per cent) surveyed worried about work always or often when not at work. And more women felt exhausted, with 28 per cent reporting they felt too tired after work to do housework, compared with 21 per cent of men. This is doubtless connected to the bigger burden of housework women face: 74 per cent of women did daily housework and cooking in 2021, compared with 42 per cent of men.

Widespread desire

Workers are not entirely happy with the status quo. There is a widespread desire to spend fewer hours in paid work—45 per cent of workers said they would prefer to work fewer hours—which could potentially translate into a fairer distribution of unpaid work. Unsurprisingly, the share was much higher among those working long hours (and much lower among those working fewer than 35 a week). Even among workers whose hours were however the standard 35-40, four out of ten would prefer to work less.

There are also small shoots of change in male and female preferences when they have children. Those surveyed with children showed the biggest discrepancy between average hours usually worked each week and what they would prefer (Figure 2).

Men would like to reduce their paid working time much more drastically than women, suggesting they experience greater strain in terms of organising their time. In general, women are more used to managing jobs and careers around family needs and responsibilities, whereas men adjust the latter to their working lives.

Figure 2: difference between average usual and preferred weekly working hours, by household type and gender, EU27

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Source: EWCTS 2021

Rebalancing work

Adapting jobs and careers to family needs often leads to the decision to work part-time, especially if the availability or affordability of care services for children or ill, disabled or elderly adults is an issue. This consideration can influence career choices from the start, with women looking for those sectors and occupations where part-time work is more easily accessible, cementing a gender-segregated labour market. The high share of women in the public sector, where the option to work part-time is more frequently offered, attests to this.

Rebalancing the division of paid and unpaid work between men and women is thus fundamental for gender equality. Doing so would allow women to make use of the same professional opportunities as their male counterparts. At the same time, the desire of many working fathers to reduce the number of hours spent in paid work inspires hope that a rebalancing is what both men and women want.

They want to live in the same world of work and not on different planets.


Barbara Gerstenberger is head of the working-life unit at Eurofound, co-ordinating the research teams investigating job quality in Europe, based on the European Working Conditions Survey, and industrial relations in the European Union.

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